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Coalition abandons the young

Lisa Nandy MP calls for devolution of power to young people

Every Child Matters was one of the great success stories of the last Labour Government, pushing children up the political agenda and ensuring issues like child poverty got the attention and priority they deserved. Around 600,000 children were lifted out of poverty and the UK's education system was ranked sixth in the world.

Meanwhile the creation of a Department for Children, Schools and Families helped to ensure leadership across Government and brought particular benefits for those children who traditionally had been left behind - for example refugee and migrant children were covered by the Children Act for the first time.

Since the 2010 election the renamed Department for Education has focused relentlessly on education, based on a belief that what happens inside the classroom can compensate for what happens outside.

High quality education should be the focus for any Government, however academies and free schools have swallowed up resources and energy. As a result, the wider support system for children and young people has been stripped away, impacting on all young people but on the already-disadvantaged the most. The Early Intervention Grant has been cut by almost 40% and as a result, Sure Start centres have closed, and other services are under severe strain.

An incoming Labour Government will inherit a situation that is dramatically different from the one that it left and its priorities must fit the reality and urgency of the challenges that creates.

The most overwhelming crisis facing young people at the current time is the closing off of opportunities. The abolition of Aim Higher, a startlingly successful programme that aimed to encourage academic children from poorer backgrounds to go onto university, combined with the hiking of tuition fees to £9,000 a year, has seriously discouraged young people from staying on at college and going on to university.

With almost a million young people out of work, youth unemployment must be a top priority for all parties. It was this sentiment that led to a recent commitment from Ed Miliband that Labour will levy a tax on bankers' bonuses and use it to fund 100,000 new youth jobs. Public procurement contracts will be dependent on providing good quality apprenticeships for young people, and a new technical baccalaureate will ensure that young people are ready for work.

Labour's vision of One Nation, where everybody has a stake, also means action will urgently be needed for those young people who are falling further and further behind.

Labour's childcare commission is considering how to ensure that children are not held back in their early years, while the commitment to rolling out a living wage will help to ensure that less advantaged children can spend more time with their parents who previously were forced to work long hours and several jobs to make ends meet.

A focus on supporting the wider children's workforce is essential in order to help the most disadvantaged the most. A commitment to tackle high social work caseloads and ensure frontline social workers have the managerial and administrative support they need to do their jobs well is based on the belief that supporting children means supporting the people who work with them.

One of the guiding principles in Labour education policy is that young people should not be at a disadvantage because their parents are not financially well-off. The Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) which gave up to £30 a week to the poorest young people in the country so they could afford to stay on at school or college was clear evidence of this. It was a major achievement of the last Labour Government, evidenced by the fight MPs, trade unions, students and parents put up to defend the EMA. It was an important policy because it was a contract between young people and the state that ensured that students who worked hard were supported to learn, without hardship. It cannot be right that we ask some young people to walk long distances, go without lunch or work long hours just to afford to stay on until 18. It is these children who may now be disadvantaged because they don't have the same time or freedom to study as students' parents can afford to give them extra money to cover these costs.

Young people have been told that education is the way to better themselves and society. We should make accessing education easier for them, not harder. We all benefit when young people of all backgrounds are able to stay in education longer to get the skills they need to compete in an increasingly tough job market.

As a society, we also have a duty to protect children from harm. Recent high profile cases of sexual abuse and exploitation, such as Rochdale and the investigation into Jimmy Savile, have shown that this is a problem of abuse of power relationships. The recent report by the Deputy Children's Commissioner which detailed horrific instances of abuse showed clearly that preventing this from happening to young people must be a top priority.

Labour has pledged to make sex and relationships education statutory in order to ensure that young people have the tools and knowledge they need to remove themselves from risky situations. This is important because many children and young people do not know what sexual grooming involves and aren't able to identify it. In 82% of the NSPCC's counselling interactions about sexual grooming, the child or young person did not recognise the process as grooming and did not understand sexual exploitation.

The role of education in tackling abuse is therefore more important than ever, particularly as there has been a marked increase in peer-to-peer exploitation in recent years. Young people need more help to understand what a healthy relationship looks like and what a sexually exploitative or abusive relationship looks like amongst their peers. We need a public awareness campaign to help everyone to identify sexual exploitation and know how and where to report it.

The establishment of a National Citizen Service, which provides a six week programme for children from all backgrounds, is welcome. But at the same time youth services have been scaled back in the face of huge cuts to Local Authority budgets and in some areas have all but disappeared. These are services which were a lifeline for some young people whose youth worker may have been the only constant adult in their lives. A Labour Government would ensure that young people had that support by placing youth services on a statutory footing, requiring local authorities to scope their youth provision in consultation with young people.

The speed and scale of the cuts to services for children and young people took everybody by surprise. It has brought young people out onto the streets in protest but for very little gain.

That's why an incoming Labour Government must ensure that young people have the skills, knowledge and power they need to stop this happening. One of the clearest ways to do that is to devolve a greater share of power to young people, firstly by encouraging every school to become a UNICEF rights respecting school so that, from an early age, children have a say in the way their school is run and by allowing them to vote from the age of sixteen. Evidence suggests that giving young people the vote while they are still in learning increases the chance that they will vote, and continue to do so. More importantly, the choices we make now whether on pensions, housing, childcare or the environment - are ones this generation will have to deal with. They deserve a say in the society they will inherit.

It is only by giving children and young people the economic, social and political tools they need that we will ensure that all young people, and not just a privileged few, get the chances they deserve to succeed.